Burn, Baby, Burn

'Stop urban sprawl!' 'Burn the rich!' 'An acre an hour is obscene!' Is it any wonder some are rooting for the arsonists?

"Happy hunting," says a communiqué claiming responsibility for the firebombings of nine luxury homes encroaching on the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.

The mysterious hit-and-run arsonist has violently reduced each house to a scorched effigy of suburban sprawl. And with the latest damage estimates surpassing $5 million, the FBI's anti-arsonist task force is decidedly unhappy.

The FBI's bouillabaisse is an impressive collaboration of law enforcement resources, including the Phoenix Police Department, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, Secret Service, U.S. Postal Service, IRS, INS and more. Yet there are still no suspects. No reported witnesses. The $61,000 bounty from area homeowners and arson investigators, the largest ever offered by the Silent Witness program for a Phoenix crime, remains unclaimed. And the best clues to the arsonist's intentions are the literal writings on the wall, messages the arsonist has left behind.

Shane Rebenschied
A view of a house torched by a serial arsonist along the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.
Paolo Vescia
A view of a house torched by a serial arsonist along the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.

"Being from a law enforcement background, I can't understand why they can't catch this guy," says Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general. "I mean, one or two [houses] is something -- but nine? I just don't understand it. If I was in charge again, I'd be wondering what the hell is going on."

When asked what the hell is going on, Deputy Fire Chief Bob Khan says local investigators have "never had anything like this before, never seen anything like this before," and notes that the Phoenix Mountains Preserve covers 29,000 acres.

Most of the acres are virgin desert, some are developed, some are under construction. And, appropriately enough, the arsonist's repeated success and consistent targets make for an excellent conservationist point, which is this: There are enough luxury homes under construction on the environmentally sensitive Preserve that even a massive law enforcement task force aided by thousands of paranoid residents can't narrow the playing field enough to spot a serial firebug who leaves burning houses in his wake.

Nine times in his wake. Three hit in December alone. The arsonist even struck the same location twice, and wrote a now-famous message to brag about it: "U Build It We Burn It -- Again."

The meticulously executed attacks, impassioned ideological messages and comically baffled collection of law enforcement officials are almost enough to make you root for the arsonist.

And the big, bad, ugly truth is: Many do.


The arsonist's first presumed attack was in 1998. The second was last April. Nobody knows why the arsonist came out of apparent felonious hibernation last year to begin a 10-month-and-counting arson spree against sprawl targets. Nobody even knows whether environmental preservation is the arsonist's true motivation. Much of the evidence -- the choice of targets, public messages left at two of the crime sites and a letter of responsibility allegedly sent from the arsonist -- strongly suggests the arsonist is a determined environmentalist. But investigators note that the arsonist's attack cycle is accelerating, indicating the perpetrator may be an arson addict first, environmentalist second.

Regardless of the arsonist's priorities, most people assume he (she? they?) commits these crimes to protest sprawl -- and either cheer or vilify him for that reason. In a rather unsettling bit of law enforcement logic, Khan says the "trigger" for the FBI taking over the arsonist case last month was that the fires appeared to be "crimes used to activate social or political change."

While the arsonist's technique is certainly criminal, his apparent attempts at social change are purely populist. A nationwide October poll shows residents in some cities rank sprawl and crime as equal concerns. Throughout California alone there were nearly four dozen land-use measures on local ballots last year attempting to curb sprawl. Even traditionally conservative suburbanites are signing environmental petitions and nagging state representatives to, you know, do something about growth.

Arizona environmentalists are justifiably more frantic than most. In the 1990s, Arizona was the second-fastest-growing state in the country (Nevada was first), and the Valley is reportedly eating desert at the rate of an acre per hour -- an oft-quoted figure called "obscene" in one alleged arsonist communiqué.

Last year's statewide sprawl war produced an unprecedented growth-control proposal with real claws -- Proposition 202. So Arizona developers lightened their wallets and outspent opponents 5-1 to convince voters that Prop 202 was downright scary: "It goes too far," it will cost jobs, it will create "density" and an upward spurt that will turn Paradise Valley into Detroit.

The campaign worked. The first Phoenix growth-cap proposal ever to stand a chance at becoming law and initially supported in polls by a 4-1 margin was ballot-punched into oblivion. Same with a second ballot measure -- the somewhat conservationist Prop 100 that would have preserved 3 percent of the state's land-trust properties. Its narrow defeat seemed like an afterthought -- oh, yeah, that one, too.

But while some civic-minded citizens struggled through traditional routes for constructive change last year, a few members of the Radical Left fought sprawl on their own terms. An organization called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for anti-sprawl arsons in Indiana, Colorado and New York. Each target was an unfinished luxury home or homes encroaching on an environmentally sensitive area. The ELF said the Niwot, Colorado, fire in November was set specifically to protest voter rejection of an anti-sprawl amendment that developers spent $6 million to defeat. At the Long Island site, accompanying graffiti expressed sentiments such as "Burn the Rich," "Stop Urban Sprawl" and . . . "If You Build It We Will Burn It."

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